With US Attorney General Bill Barr seeking the extradition of a suspected bombmaker from Libya, we take a look at the search for answers behind an international tragedy

They were going home to a Christmas they would never see. Just 38 minutes after the plane had taken off, as it prepared to wheel to port and head out over the Atlantic, an explosion ripped through a forward hold of the Boeing 747.

It was two minutes and 50 seconds past 7pm on the evening of December 21, 1988. A recovered voice recorder would reveal a 180-millisecond hissing noise before Pan Am 103’s communications centre was destroyed.

The force of the explosion was magnified by the uncontrolled decompression of the fuselage. The giant plane broke up and began to fall on Lockerbie. A pilot in a passing shuttle to Glasgow reported seeing a huge fire in the town.

The bomb which killed the 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground, was small – less than a pound of Semtex plastic explosive secreted inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player and packed inside a Samsonite suitcase in the forward left hold. It had a barometric timer which triggered the explosion when the plane, Clipper Maid Of The Seas, reached 31,000 feet. It was intended to go off over the sea, so that the evidence was destroyed. Instead it spread the devastation, the bodies and millions of often tiny parts, over 850 square miles of Borders countryside.

The particulars of the bomb, how it was made and its components are crucial – they are the signature, the fingerprints of the bombmaker. The US Department of Justice believes that it knows the identity of the man who made it, as do the Scottish authorities who have been trying for years to finger Abu Agila Mohammad Masud. He is believed to be in Libya and may be in jail. Given that Libya is in the middle of civil war, with two governments claiming legitimacy and a host of militias fighting it out, the prospects of Masud being extradited and brought back to face trial are not bright.

It took 12 years, laborious global diplomacy, murky machinations and a series of compromises, sanctions and inducements before the trial of the two Libyan suspects began before a specially-convened court of three judges at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. At the end of it one of them, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was convicted of the atrocity and sentenced to life, with a minimum of 27 years.

The back story, the motive, was that after a US attack on Tripoli in 1986, which killed the daughter of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he authorised the revenge attack. Libya’s former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil later told a newspaper that Gaddafi personally ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103.

It took time, but eventually the effect of the crippling sanctions imposed on the country, and the diplomacy of people like Tony Blair, eventually persuaded Gaddafi to give up the two suspects. The account of what led to the bombing, which was believed by the three Scottish judges at Zeist, was that the key player, Megrahi, was a Libyan agent. The plot involved an unwitting Air Malta worker who checked the suitcase onto a Frankfurt-bound flight as a favour for a “friend” in Germany, where the suitcase was routed to Heathrow, then loaded on to Pan Am 103.

A key witness was Tony Gauci, who owned a clothes shop, Mary’s House, near Malta’s airport. Shreds of clothing were recovered which the evidence said had been used to wrap round the bomb in the suitcase. Almost a dozen years later, after what must have been a very fleeting meeting in his shop, he was able to confirm that al-Megrahi was the man he sold the clothes to.

However, the quality and veracity of his evidence was later tainted when it emerged that he had been paid $2 million, with $1m to his brother, Paul, under the Department of Justice “Rewards for Justice” programme. Gauci died in 2016.

I was at Camp Zeist for part of the trial, but not when Pierre Salinger gave evidence. He was formerly the chief foreign correspondent for the ABC network. Prior to that he was the press secretary for John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. According to reporters who witnessed his evidence he was thanked for his testimony and asked to leave the witness box, he thought peremptorily.

“That’s all?” asked Salinger. He had interviewed the two suspects. “Wait a minute. You’re not letting me tell the truth. I know who did it. I know how it was done.” He was told by Lord Sutherland: “If you wish to make a point you may do so elsewhere, but I’m afraid you may not do so in this court.”

There is another scenario to the bombing, with responsibility tacked onto Iran, the payback for the shooting down of Iran flight 655 by a missile fired in error from the US warship Vincennes in July 1988, six months before Lockerbie, killing 290 passengers. It was ommissioned by Iran but carried out by a cell of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Less than two months before Lockerbie, Frankfurt police had raided a PFLP-GC cell led by bombmaker Marwan Khreesat and found four Semtex bombs inside Toshiba radio-cassette players. A fifth device had disappeared. One line of inquiry by Scottish police at the time was that this one brought down Pan Am 103.

Khreesat was quickly released by the German police, ostensibly because he was a Jordanian double agent. He lived out the rest of his life in Jordan, where he died in 2016. According to his daughter Saha, while he denied that he was responsible for Lockerbie, he claimed that he had evidence that Jibril was guilty and was paid $11m by Iran to carry it out.

Which of the two competing accounts is the true one we’ll probably never know. All those who would know have joined the 270 they killed. Megrahi, suffering from terminal cancer, was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 but, rather embarrassingly for then-justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, who authorised it, he lived a further three years. In November, five Scottish judges heard the third appeal against his conviction on the grounds of a possible miscarriage of justice.

December 21, 1988: 270 die in Lockerbie bombing.

May 2000: A special trial under Scots law starts on neutral ground at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

January 31, 2001: Former Libyan intelligence officer Megrahi is found guilty of mass murder and jailed for life with a minimum term of 27 years.

March 2002: Megrahi loses an appeal against his conviction.

June 2007: The Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission recommends that Megrahi is granted a second appeal against his conviction.

August 18, 2009: Megrahi's move to drop his second appeal is accepted by judges at the High Court in Edinburgh.

August 20, 2009: Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, is released from prison on compassionate grounds.

May 2012: Megrahi dies at his home in Tripoli, aged 60.

July 2017: Megrahi's family launch a new appeal against conviction.

March 2020: The SCCRC rules Megrahi's conviction can be taken to a fresh appeal.

November 2020: Five Scottish judges hear the third appeal against Megrahi's conviction on grounds of possible miscarriage of justice.